by Dovid Katz (Vilnius)
Full credit to the Forward’s Paul Berger, who has, as ever, sought to be meticulously fair in his new article on some aspects of contemporary Lithuanian Jewish life. This “addendum” goes in a sense more to the wider issues encountered when Western journalists cover stories in the “slightly exotic east,” here in Eastern Europe, on ground zero of the Holocaust, where Jewish communities are ipso facto remnant communities, and where certain larger trends can at times be in play.
But before we start, this is a stark case that can be looked at by journalism students for decades to come, where the picture and headline tell opposite stories before you even read the article. In the picture we see Boston-born Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky, a resident here in Vilnius for over 22 years, teaching a class in which nine adult Lithuanian-born-and-bred Jews are studying a traditional Jewish text over refreshments. Then we see superimposed on the photo the headline: “It’s Chabad vs. Lithuanian Jews in Fight over Holocaust Funds.” So are these nine Lithuanian Jews somehow opposed by a monstrous creature called “Chabad” in a struggle against some mythical “Lithuanian Jewry”? Rabbi Krinsky has had his run-ins and errors over the decades, like everyone else in town, but you would be hard-pressed to find one Jew in the country that doesn’t agree that he and his wife, Rebbetzin Nechama Dina Krinsky, have been providing the overwhelming majority of religious services from birth to death, gratis to all, for close to a quarter century now. I can report myself on many occasions when an elderly Jewish friend died, and there was just one rabbi in town to organize tahara and proper Jewish burial. And if one year I forget to organize a yórtsayt lamp for my own father, there is just one place in town to go for that too. On happier notes, Chanukah menorahs, havdóle sets and lúlev-and-ésrog sets come from there as well.
And with that, we come to the main point in such disputes all across Eastern Europe where governments have been pressured into providing some kind of financial restitution for looted Jewish property that because of the Nazis, the Soviets, and sometimes successor states, went into the hands of the majority population that was not subjected to genocide. Even a priori, one might fear that when governments, particularly nationalist governments of smaller and insecure states, are pressured to make some kind of “atonement” for past wrongs committed in earlier generations, there would be a natural inclination to nevertheless “steer” those funds to things this or that government agency or group wants, rather than to what is needed for the survival into the future of a fragile remnant Jewish community.
And on this central point, what can go unnoticed is that hundreds of thousands of euros have gone in recent years here in Lithuania to things other than the building of a future for the struggling Lithuanian Jewish community that has to its credit enormous achievements in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Lithuania’s bold declaration of independence in March 1990, and its evolution into a successful democratic state ever since. For many years, under the wise and sober leadership of the inspirational Dr. Shimon Alperovich (1928–2014), in close and mutually respectful cooperation with the Joint Distribution Committee, the community went from strength to strength despite the demographic challenges. For example, the community was world famous for its unique four-language newspaper Jerusalem of Lithuania (in English, Lithuanian, Russian and Yiddish in separate and equal editions) edited by Milan Chersonski for its final dozen years (1999-2011). But with the advent of restitution and sudden wealth came a major diversion away from the living, actual community and to various government-related interests or those of individual government hand-picked “Jewish leaders,” often using as ersatz the word “Litvak” as a marketing tool, even while casually perverting it. In fact, the Joint pulled out of the Good Will Foundation entirely last year, an important development that often goes unmentioned. The Good Will Foundation (GWF) is the official state-sponsored restitution-disbursing entity.
Turning then to the list of allocations and a list of “statistics” from recent years that are on the website of the GWF, we find, among other things, 105,734 euros (about US $112,517) in the period 2014-2016 for the New York situated Yivo Institute for Jewish Research, but not for (say) a new Yiddish secular school for Lithuanian Jews in Vilnius in the spirit of the historical Yivo, or even a single Yiddish class at the Sholem Aleichem school which has for all its history, despite its name, never tried to introduce the serious study of Yiddish in the face of numerous offers of help on that score over the years (starting with scholarships to Oxford summer programs over two decades ago). Instead, the funds were for an academic research project to digitize books and archives. To be sure it is a wonderful project that a handful of Yiddish specialists (including me) are thrilled about, but of zero interest to the Jews of Lithuania. Some very quick research shows that Yivo and its director have since 2011 been playing a very public role in the Lithuanian government’s Holocaust revisionist politics, to the point where our city’s last Vilna-born Holocaust survivor, Professor Pinchos Fridberg, directed an open letter, in March 2015, to the Yivo director in the Yiddish edition of the same Forward. An English translation appeared in Defending History. In 2012, the Yivo director was one of the foreign personalities enlisted in a Holocaust symposium scheduled to deflect attention from the state’s reburial with full honors of its Nazi-era puppet prime minister. Back in 2011, Milan Chersonski issued an open letter to the Yivo director that likewise appeared in the Yiddish, but not the English language edition of the Forward.
And so one aspect of the plot line becomes clear: Large sums of money have been handed out by the Good Will Foundation not for a project to help Lithuania’s struggling Jewish community survive and evolve, but to reward a rich American institution that has provided political cover for Holocaust revisionism in a disturbing pattern over many years now (see DH’s section, best read in chronological order by first scrolling down to the earliest entries).
Then there is another disturbing plot line. Since the community was taken over by a lay leader who is in her professional life the country’s top EU passport lawyer (and a most admirably brilliant lawyer at that, and one with close connections to the highest politicians in the land, important for elite clients), there has been a systematic de-Judaization of the official “Jewish Community of Lithuania” by the firing of Jewish stalwarts, such as long-time executive director and beloved community leader Simon Gurevich (Simonas Gurevicius) back in 2015, and the employment of what people in the community take as “only pure ethnic Lithuanians” (most of whom are close to — or related to — powerful government figures), for “the good jobs.” Indeed, another allocation on the published list, overlooked in the Forward article, tells much of that story: for one year alone, €193,174 (about US $205,566) went for a “project of media and strengthening public relations” which is nicetalk for the “Bagel Shop” project (as with “Litvak” a homey ethnic term is purloined for PR), in which only non-Jewish people get high salaries at the Jewish Community of Lithuania to “teach the Jews” how to do public relations. Of course there should be people of different backgrounds employed in all communities, and of course non-Jewish colleagues make huge contributions at all levels to Jewish life here and it is obvious that Lithuanian-Jewish partnership and harmony are at the core of so many of our successful endeavors here. The problem is when it gets to an extreme of exclusion vis-a-vis the very community it is supposed to be it can become an existential question and one of blatant large-scale identity theft. As a thought experiment, just try to imagine an African-American community (again community, not the research center of a university) in the United States where every decent new job seems to go in principle only to lily-whites, while the local African-American people are somehow regarded as inherently unable to represent themselves.
In fact, these PR specialists and habitual Litvak imposters, from the “The Executive of the Chairperson’s Office” on down through the Bagels, Bialys and Doughnuts, have been conveying the message that the Jews can no longer represent themselves, hence it is necessary for elite spinmeisters to come in and save the Jewish day. There are few allocations that have made today’s Lithuanian Jews more bitter about the “Good Will Foundation” (colloquially called the “Bad Will Foundation” in everyday conversations) and the current lay leadership. If you don’t believe me, why not commission a professional survey of Lithuanian Jewish opinion today among the country’s remaining 3,000 Jews (not 6,000, the frequent spin figure which is cited as fact in the Forward article).
Incidentally, Rabbi Krinsky’s Chabad Lithuania has not been the only target of a campaign of delegitimization. Other spiritually independent-of-the-government entities, including those splendidly led by non-Jews who are not in the “current power loop,” such as the Jewish Cultural and Information Center (JCIC), a home to friendly and open discussion on Jewish issues for one and all, has in recent months found itself at the receiving end of a campaign of destruction funded, in effect, by restitution. Indeed, such successful institutions as the JCIC that have remained welcoming to all sides of every Jewish-related issue in town, and have contributed much to Lithuanian-Jewish friendship, are being attacked by the restitution-receivers. Meanwhile, other projects that mean nothing to Lithuanian Jewry or its future, like a statue of Gandhi and Kallenbach in a remote locale, have been financed by the Good Will Foundation to the tune of €29,000 ($30,860). Who exactly was being made happy by that one?
Because of the current close nexus of the Lithuanian foreign ministry and its Israeli counterpart, the latter too has had a nice bite out of this pie, not worrying unduly that these funds, deriving from the religious Jewish properties of the annihilated Jewish population, are meant for the survival and growth of the remnant Jewish community. There is €28,962 for a single concert by the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, €14,822 for the Jewish Agency of Israel, €8,000 for a Tel Aviv based association of (often quite wealthy) people of Vilna area background for various trips to Lithuania, €6,500 for a Vilnius exhibition by an Israeli artist, and €2,700 for cultural exchanges between Israeli and Lithuanian LGBT communities. These are all fine causes for which proper funding can be found without raiding these restitution funds deriving from the religious properties of the victims of the Holocaust in Lithuania. [Troubling questions are raised about current Israeli policy on speaking out (howsoever politely and mildly) on issues of antisemitism and Holocaust Obfuscation, and locally, on the state-sponsored glorification of Holocaust collaborators. On the specific, see the disturbing story of last year’s Kaunas city-center parade celebrating Holocaust collaborators. On the general, see Shmuel Rosner’s recent New York Times op-ed (also DH’s Israel page).]
Against this backdrop comes the long list of zeros in the allocation document for the Bais Menachem school, Lithuania’s only religious Jewish school. As reported in detail on these pages, there is no “Litvak vs. Chabad” argument here. Rabbi Krinsky has for many years now meticulously adhered in public to the Litvak misnagdic rite whenever leading a public prayer in the Choral Synagogue, the only prewar synagogue to survive the Holocaust as an active house of prayer, including the entire period of Soviet occupation. It was therefore a shock that restitution funds allocated by the Good Will Foundation have been used repeatedly since 29 October 2016 for burly armed security guards to prevent Rabbi Krinsky and his worshippers from entering the synagogue. Most recently, this sickening scene was captured on video and it is the status quo, believe it or not — today.
As a result, the official synagogue is once again kept going by a crew of (delightful!) aged paid minyan members while those who wish to participate voluntarily in prayer services, in most cases those brought to love of traditional religious life by Rabbi and Mrs. Krinsky’s twenty-two years of volunteered blood, sweat and tears, now have to pray elsewhere. Is that wise expenditure of funds by the Good Will Foundation, whose website has spat Schadenfreude at the Bais Menachem School being behind in its state social security tax payments, picking up on an oft-repeated antisemitic trope here? The citizenship lawyer cum lay leader of the Jewish community has launched a veritable (and wholly unprovoked) campaign of destruction against Rabbi Krinsky, including a website post suggesting that Chabad is a nefarious plot funded by a foreign state (meaning Russia), and going on to attack his universally beloved city-center grand Chanukah menorah lighting, employing a Lithuanian academic to follow suit, and thereby inspiring an antisemitic tirade that rehashed the Russian Czarist government’s odious antisemitic charges against the quintessentially Lithuanian Jewish group he is affiliated with, Chabad-Luabvitch, back in the 1790s (!). Following the tense run-up, Rabbi Krinsky and his colleagues pulled off one of the most spectacular Vilnius Chanukah successes ever, drawing hundreds of people to the central Kudirkos Square this past Chanukah, as well as the mayor, parliamentarians, and a number of ambassadors, including those of Ireland, Israel, Norway and Turkey. The mainstream media coverage of the event included the City of Vilnius website, TV3.lt, Lrytas.lt, 15min.lt, Delfi.lt and Wilnoteka.lt. But at least one official lay leader seems to have reacted with some good old fashioned envy of someone else’s success.
But it could well be that for Western journalism, the most newsworthy scene in this story is that of a state-sponsored restitution-fund community abusing its funds to unleash security guards to keep out of the one functioning synagogue the one long-term resident rabbi in town. Hard to beat that one for sheer absurdity. Let us, incidentally, hope that the American Embassy in Vilnius will extend some moral support to one of its own citizens in town, who for many years had been a beloved figure at the annual Fourth of July celebration until for some reason, after the change in Jewish community official leadership, he was abruptly excluded, and his absence from the guest list rapidly noticed by many of the regulars from the diplomatic and international communities.
IS THIS AN APPROPRIATE USE OF RESTITUTION FUNDS DERIVING FROM THE RELIGIOUS JEWISH PROPERTIES OF LITHUANIA’S ANNIHILATED JEWRY?
When Rabbi Krinsky arrived on Sunday morning, 8 January 2017, for services, his entry was again blocked by a team of burly security guards. Photo is a still from the video taken by Kaunas religious community head Moyshe Bairak whose voice is heard, pleading with the guard, at the start of the video, which Mr. Bairak posted on his Facebook page. He was visiting in Vilnius for the weekend and also witnessed the initial barring of the rabbi at the Sabbath morning service on 7 January. See also additional video posted by Elchanan Prus.
It might, moreover, strike some observers as strange that for a reply to Rabbi Krinsky, the Forward did not bring a quote from the community’s own official chief rabbi, the eminent Kalev Krelin. Rumors are rife concerning his own official status following his enormously courageous signing of an international petition in December respectfully calling on the government to move its national convention center project away from the old Vilna Jewish cemetery. The previous chief rabbi, Chaim Burshtein, was publicly and humiliatingly dismissed in 2015, after he published a statement accepting the views of the great Lithuanian tradition rabbis in the world opposing the “national convention center in the old Jewish cemetery project.”
In fact, the website of the official Jewish community has yet to mention that petition, by Vilnius born-and-bred citizen Ruta Bloshtein, one of the few Orthodox Jews in town, who has also weighed in on the bogus “Chabad vs. Lithuanian Jewry” campaign of misinformation, as did other stalwarts of the community, including Leon Kaplan, Zecharia Olitzky and Jacob Piliansky.
Ms. Bloshtein’s petition on the old Jewish cemetery’s fate this week topped the 38,000 signature mark, and will hopefully be reported on too in the Forward. Incidentally, until recently the director of the “Good Will Foundation” was the husband of a government official who has been instrumental in stage-managing the allegedly corrupt London rabbis who stand accused of granting permissions for building on cemeteries in Eastern Europe in return for large payments. But now the director is one of the “Bagels” whose salary is a gift of the same state foundation that she directs. It seems that conflict-of-interest awareness has yet to come to this part of the world. Speaking of conflicts of interest, one US member of the Good Will Foundation board is also the point man for the old Vilna cemetery issue of the taxpayer-funded “US Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad” (USCPAHA) that has yet to utter a public word about the Vilnius Jewish cemetery saga. And, speaking of the larger topic of a state agency’s manipulation of its weakest minorities, it is extraordinary, is it not, that property developers’ and corrupt politicians’ fervor for building a convention center in the heart of an old Jewish cemetery would become the “religion” of a “lay leader” of the Jewish community to the point where dissent, or a petition launched by one of its own members that achieved 38,000 signatures, may not even be mentioned on the website. It is a classic example of the state muscling in on a minority’s last assets, while corrupting it to fight against its own deepest interests (this is a genre of racism: this would not be the fate of a historic five-century old Christian cemetery in town; see DH’s human rights sections). For more on the saga of the old Jewish cemetery at Piramónt in the Šnipiškės (Shnípishok) section of the capital, see the summaries by Professor S. Leiman, Professor Bernard Fryshman, and myself, and, most importantly, the awe-inspiring scope of local Jewish and international opposition.
Two final thoughts.
First, today’s Lithuanian Jews and activists in Jewish affairs and projects do not spend their days and nights fighting with each other, as the Forward article and this response might both seem to suggest! Our community in Lithuania is one of the world’s friendliest, warmest, and most delightfully diverse and authentic! People get along with and speak to each other openly and courteously rather more, and with more good humor, than in many other places. Sure, Litvaks love to argue and friendly argument has been a Litvak trait for centuries. In fact, the current and to be sure temporary chaos will prove a useful example about something else: the fallout from the “single” mistake of allowing a conflict-of-interested attorney to have full, unchecked, and sole de facto power over a vast budget from restitution funds, and over the entire infrastructure of a Jewish community that took decades to build, in circumstances in which most other Jewish (and deeply committed non-Jewish) personalities and projects in town are berated and negated in campaigns of destruction enabled from the very restitution funds that are supposed to build the community. From throwing money to those connected to government figures to throwing money at armed security services to eject the only resident rabbi from the only synagogue, absurdities ad infinitum are bound to ensue. In such circumstances it is only natural that unnatural alliances would form between units of government with agendas and the political and practical needs of a country’s top passport lawyer for wealthy foreigners (particularly from South Africa) seeking EU citizenship.
Second, looking ahead to the spring, there is another big Lithuanian-Jewish news story coming up. According to the constitution and by-laws of the official Jewish Community of Lithuania, there should be new, free, open, fair and democratic elections for the chairperson of both the Lithuanian Jewish Community and the Vilnius Jewish Community by the spring of 2017. Have these elections and invitations with instructions to candidates to put themselves forward been announced on the community’s website? The website, financed by restitution funds, is edited by the well-known Lithuanian journalist Ilona Rūkienė.